Biblically-Anemic Preaching

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					                              Biblically-Anemic Preaching
             The Devastating Consequences of a Watered-Down Message

                                       By John MacArthur

Those who are familiar with my ministry know that I am committed to expository preaching. It is
my unshakable conviction that the proclamation of God’s Word should always be the heart and
the focus of the church’s ministry (2 Tim. 4:2). And proper biblical preaching should be
systematic, expositional, theological, and God-centered.

Such preaching is in short supply these days. There are plenty of gifted communicators in the
modern evangelical movement, but today’s sermons tend to be short, shallow, topical homilies
that massage people’s egos and focus on fairly insipid subjects like human relationships,
"successful" living, emotional issues, and other practical but worldly—and not definitively
biblical—themes. These messages are lightweight and without substance, cheap and synthetic,
leaving little more than an ephemeral impression on the minds of the hearers.

Some time ago I hosted a discussion at the Expositors’ Institute, an annual small-group
colloquium on preaching held at our church. In preparation for that seminar, I took a yellow legal
pad and a pen and began listing the negative effects of the superficial brand of preaching that is
so rife in modern evangelicalism.

I initially thought I might be able to identify about ten, but in the end I had jotted down a list of
sixty-one devastating consequences. I’ve distilled them to fifteen by combining and eliminating
all but the most crucial ones. I offer them as a warning against superficial, marginally biblical
preaching—both to those who stand behind the pulpit and to those who sit in the pew.

1. It usurps the authority of God over the soul. Whether a preacher boldly
proclaims the Word of God or not is ultimately a question of authority. Who has the right to
speak to the church? The preacher or God? Whenever anything is substituted for the preaching of
the Word, God’s authority is usurped. What a prideful thing to do! In fact, it is hard to conceive
of anything more insolent that could be done by a man who is called by God to preach.

2. It removes the lordship of Christ from His church. Who is the Head of the
church? Is Christ really the dominant teaching authority in the church? If so, then why are there
so many churches where His Word is not being faithfully proclaimed? When we look at
contemporary ministry, we see programs and methods that are the fruit of human invention, the
offspring of opinion polls and neighborhood surveys, and other pragmatic artifices. Church-
growth experts have in essence wrested control of the church’s agenda from her true Head, the
Lord Jesus Christ. Our Puritan forefathers resisted the imposition of government-imposed
liturgies for precisely this reason: They saw it as a direct attack on the headship of Christ over
His own church. Modern preachers who neglect the Word of God have yielded the ground those
men fought and sometimes died for. When Jesus Christ is exalted among His people, His power
is manifest in the church. When the church is commandeered by compromisers who want to
appease the culture, the gospel is minimized, true power is lost, artificial energy must be
manufactured, and superficiality takes the place of truth.

3. It hinders the work of the Holy Spirit. What is the instrument the Spirit uses to
do His work? The Word of God. He uses the Word as the instrument of regeneration (1 Pet. 1:23;
Jas. 1:18). He also uses it as the means of sanctification (John 17:17). In fact, it is the only tool
He uses (Eph. 6:17). So when preachers neglect God’s Word, they undermine the work of the
Holy Spirit, producing shallow conversions and spiritually lame Christians—if not utterly
spurious ones.

4. It demonstrates appalling pride and a lack of submission. In the
modern approach to "ministry," the Word of God is deliberately downplayed, the reproach of
Christ is quietly repudiated, the offense of the gospel is carefully eliminated, and "worship" is
purposely tailored to fit the preferences of unbelievers. That is nothing but a refusal to submit to
the biblical mandate for the church. The effrontery of ministers who pursue such a course is, to
me, frightening.

5. It severs the preacher personally from the regular sanctifying
grace of Scripture. The greatest personal benefit that I get from preaching
is the work that the Spirit of God does on my own soul as I study and prepare for two expository
messages each Lord’s Day. Week by week the duty of careful exposition keeps my own heart
focused and fixed on the Scriptures, and the Word of God nourishes me while I prepare to feed
my flock. So I am personally blessed and spiritually strengthened through the enterprise. If for
no other reason, I would never abandon biblical preaching. The enemy of our souls is after
preachers in particular, and the sanctifying grace of the Word of God is critical to our protection.

6. It clouds the true depth and transcendence of our message and
therefore cripples both corporate and personal worship. What passes for
preaching in some churches today is literally no more profound than what preachers in our
fathers’ generation were teaching in the five-minute children’s sermon they gave before
dismissing the kids. That’s no exaggeration. It is often that simplistic, if not utterly inane. There
is nothing deep about it. Such an approach makes it impossible for true worship to take place,
because worship is a transcendent experience. Worship should take us above the mundane and
simplistic. So the only way true worship can occur is if we first come to grips with the depth of
spiritual truth. Our people can only rise high in worship in the same proportion to which we have
taken them deep into the profound truths of the Word. There is no way they can have lofty
thoughts of God unless we have plunged them into the depths of God’s self-revelation. But
preaching today is neither profound nor transcendent. It doesn’t go down, and it doesn’t go up. It
merely aims to entertain.

By the way, true worship is not something that can be stimulated artificially. A bigger, louder
band and more sentimental music might do more to stir people’s emotions. But that is not
genuine worship. True worship is a response from the heart to God’s truth (John 4:23). You can
actually worship without music if you have seen the glories and the depth of what the Bible

7. It prevents the preacher from fully developing the mind of Christ.
Pastors are supposed to be under-shepherds of Christ. Too many modern preachers are so
bent on understanding the culture that they develop the mind of the culture and not the mind of
Christ. They start to think like the world, and not like the Savior. Frankly, the nuances of worldly
culture are virtually irrelevant to me. I want to know the mind of Christ and bring that to bear on
the culture, no matter what culture I may be ministering to. If I’m going to stand up in a pulpit
and be a representative of Jesus Christ, I want to know how He thinks—and that must be my
message to His people too. The only way to know and proclaim the mind of Christ is by being
faithful to study and preach His Word. What happens to preachers who obsess about cultural
"relevancy" is that they become worldly, not godly.

8. It depreciates by example the spiritual duty and priority of
personal Bible study. Is personal Bible study important? Of course. But what example
does the preacher set when he neglects the Bible in his own preaching? Why would people think
they need to study the Bible if the preacher doesn’t do serious study himself in the preparation of
his sermons? There is now a movement among some in ministry to trim, as much as possible, all
explicit references to the Bible from the sermon—and above all, don’t ever ask your people to
turn to a specific Bible passage because that kind of thing makes "seekers" uncomfortable. Some
churches actively discourage their people from bringing Bibles to church lest the sight of so
many Bibles intimidate the "seekers." As if it were dangerous to give your people the impression
that the Bible might be important!
9. It prevents the preacher from being the voice of God on every
issue of his time. Jeremiah 8:9 says, "The wise men are ashamed, they are
dismayed and taken. Behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord; so what wisdom do they
have?" When I speak, I want to be God’s messenger. I’m not interested in exegeting what some
psychologist or business guru or college professor has to say about an issue. My people don’t
need my opinion; they need to hear what God has to say. If we preach as Scripture commands us,
there should be no ambiguity about whose message is coming from the pulpit.

10. It breeds a congregation that is as weak and indifferent to the
glory of God as their pastor is. Such preaching fosters people who are consumed
with their own well-being. When you tell people that the church’s primary ministry is to fix for
them whatever is wrong in this life—to meet their needs, to help them cope with their worldly
disappointments, and so on—the message you are sending is that their mundane problems are
more important than the glory of God and the majesty of Christ. Again, that sabotages true

11. It robs people of their only true source of help. People who sit under
superficial preaching become dependent on the cleverness and the creativity of the speaker.
When preachers punctuate their sermons with laser lights and smoke, video clips and live drama,
the message they send is that there isn’t a prayer the people in the pew could ever extract such
profound material on their own. Such gimmicks create a kind of dispensing mechanism that
people can’t use to serve themselves. So they become spiritual couch potatoes who just come in
to be entertained, and whatever superficial spiritual content they get from the preacher’s weekly
performance is all they will get. They have no particular interest in the Bible because the
sermons they hear don’t cultivate that. They are wowed by the preacher’s creativity and
manipulated by the music, and that becomes their whole perspective on spirituality.

12. It encourages people to become indifferent to the Word of God
and divine authority. Predictably, in a church where the preaching of Scripture is
neglected, it becomes impossible to get people to submit to the authority of Scripture. The
preacher who always aims at meeting felt needs and strokes the conceit of worldly people has no
platform from which to confront the man who wants to divorce his wife without cause. The man
will say, "You don’t understand what I feel. I came here because you promised to meet my felt
needs. And I’m telling you, I don’t feel like I want to live with this woman anymore." You can’t
inject biblical authority into that. You certainly wouldn’t have an easy time pursuing church
discipline. That is the monster that superficial preaching creates. But if you are going to try to
deal with sin and apply any kind of authoritative principle to keep the church pure, you must be
preaching the Word.
13. It lies to people about what they really need. In Jeremiah 8:11, God
condemns the prophets who treated people’s wounds superficially. That verse applies powerfully
to the preachers who populate so many prominent evangelical pulpits today. They omit the hard
truths about sin and judgment. They tone down the offensive parts of Christ’s message. They lie
to people about what they really need, promising them "fulfillment" and earthly well-being when
what people really need is an exalted vision of Christ and a true understanding of the splendor of
God’s holiness.

14. It strips the pulpit of power. "The word of God is living and powerful, and
sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12). Everything else is impotent, giving merely an
illusion of power. Human strategy is not more important than Scripture. The showman’s ability
to lure people in should not impress us more than the Bible’s ability to transform lives.

15. It puts the responsibility on the preacher to change people with
his cleverness. Preachers who pursue the modern approach to ministry must think they
have the power to change people. That, too, is a frightening expression of pride. We preachers
can’t save people, and we can’t sanctify them. We can’t change people with our insights, our
cleverness, by entertaining them or by appealing to their human whims and wishes and
ambitions. There’s only One who can change sinners. That’s God, and He does it by His Spirit
through the Word.

So pastors must preach the Word, even though it is currently out of fashion to do so (2 Tim. 4:2).
That is the only way their ministry can ever truly be fruitful. Moreover, it assures that they will
be fruitful in ministry, because God’s Word never returns to Him void; it always accomplishes
that for which He sends it and prospers in what He sends it to do (Isa. 55:11).

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